Quick, clean and green, maglev technology is well suited to short, inter-city trips – if transport planners make the investment
With more and more people using the railways in Britain, the country clearly needs greater capacity. Developments like Crossrail, which will open in 2018, and HS2 will help, but could revisiting magnetic levitation technology hold the answer to cutting journey times between nearby crowded UK cities?
The main asset of a maglev – named after the technology that keeps it hovering – is its ability to accelerate and decelerate quickly. This means it is ideally suited to shorter intra-city trips. Maglev trains also have fewer carriages, so it’s better suited for passengers travelling on trains every few minutes.
There are already several maglev lines in Asia. The best-known is the Transrapid system in Shanghai, the world’s fastest commercially operating train, which can reach speeds of 267mph. Last year, the Incheon Airport maglev was launched in South Korea. In Japan, the Chuo Shinkansen line under construction will allow trains to travel the 178 miles between Tokyo and Nagoya at a top speed of 310mph, with most of the journey taking place underground. The service will connect the two cities in 40 minutes.
Due to the huge cost of running a maglev over very long distances, the hovering trains have been ruled out for the planned HS2 line connecting Manchester with London and Birmingham by 2033. Any distance of more than 15 miles currently makes the technology uneconomical, which means that Japan’s maglev plans, budgeted at £69bn, amount to the nation putting all its eggs in one basket.
For UK transport planners, the question is whether there is a place for maglev to provide connections between our major cities and the current railway infrastructure. Transport authorities should definitely be looking at maglev for inter-city routes like Leeds to Manchester, and Edinburgh to Glasgow. What’s more, the trains can claim solid northern roots: Professor Eric Laithwaite, an engineering visionary from Wigan, lodged the first maglev patent in 1956 after completing cutting-edge doctoral research at Manchester University.
Maglev technology is expensive because the magnets and coils use a lot of electricity, but it is proven, unlike the Hyperloop vacuum tube system that has also been proposed for use in the UK. Achieving a vacuum across a long distance is a significant engineering challenge and there are many safety issues to be overcome, like how to evacuate Hyperloop if the train broke down.
Some of the issues with Hyperloop make revisiting maglev look even more like the right thing to do because there doesn’t seem to be a reduction in the need to travel in the digital era, and business always demands more speed. Maglev is clean, green, quick and actually feasible with today’s technology, but it will need a good business case and support from regional and national government.
We’re not going to see magnetic levitation travel connecting London and the north, or at least any time soon, but there is potential to use this technology to create super-fast inter-urban lines complementing HS1, HS2 and our local train networks. With leadership and vision, our very popular railway network could yet again be at the forefront of new technology.